Miami-Dade County

Ethics board may fine lobbyist

Miami-Dade's ethics commission said a prominent Florida lobbyist broke local laws in part by slipping a poison-pen letter about his client's competitor to a county judge who was helping pick the winner of a multimillion-dollar contract.

Robert Levy also tried to influence a second judge and did not disclose that he represented a company seeking the contract, the ethics panel said.

Levy did not return numerous calls to his offices and mobile phone. He signed a document May 10 that waived his right to a probable-cause hearing before the ethics panel, but admitted no wrongdoing.

Unless he negotiates a plea deal, the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust will hold a public hearing on the case later this year. If the charges are sustained, Levy could be fined up to $1,250, according to Robert Meyers, the commission's director.

The fine is much smaller than the $5,000 Levy received from his client, Metro Traffic Safety Institute, last July, according to the ethics report. That payment, the report said, was "ostensibly" for Levy's lobbying in Hillsborough County. At around the same time, Metro bid on a $7 million contract to oversee misdemeanor probation in Miami-Dade. The ethics report says Levy told investigators his work in Miami-Dade was a "quid pro quo."

Metro wanted to replace The Advocate Program, the company that has overseen misdemeanor probation services since 1975 and now handles hundreds of new cases every month. Advocate ultimately won the new contract with a revised selection committee that did not include the judges Levy contacted.

Levy -- an experienced lobbyist whose dozens of clients include Baptist Health South Florida and the cities of Palmetto Bay, Miami Shores, Homestead, Cutler Bay, Miami Beach and Florida City -- never registered Metro as a client, which was one violation of Miami-Dade ordinance, the ethics report says.

He told ethics investigators that a representative of Metro gave him a letter that raised questions about the fairness of the bid process. According to the report, Levy admitted distributing the letter to numerous judges, mostly at a Cuban American Bar Association event in August where he told investigators he gave it to "everyone he could find."

Among others, he gave the letter to Judge Beth Bloom, who was on the contract's five-member selection committee. He talked with another committee member, Judge Amy Karan, on the steps of her condo, but the report does not say whether he gave her the letter.

"The canons of judicial ethics prohibit the judges from making any comment, " said Eunice Sigler, spokeswoman for the 11th Judicial Circuit, who answered inquiries to Karan and Bloom.

The report said Levy told investigators he knew Bloom and Karan were on the committee; contacting them about the bid violated the county's "cone of silence" rules, designed to prevent interference in procurement.

The letter said the bidding process was tainted because Advocate's director, David McGriff, was "well-connected" with Chief Circuit Judge Joseph Farina's office and "others in the court."

McGriff was also fraternity brothers with Samuel Slom, administrative judge over the misdemeanor courts, the letter said. Slom had turned down an earlier request to sit on the selection committee.

McGriff said his connections to the judges and court staff is based on a long record of working together on misdemeanor probations.

"I don't socialize with any of these judges; the relationship is 99 percent professional, " said McGriff.

The letter also highlighted McGriff's decade-old arrest for DUI, but gave no reason that should exclude him or his program from winning the contract. McGriff said the case -- which he said occurred in 1995, not 1997, as the letter said -- was not a secret. Indeed, it was reported in The Miami Herald.

Most of the probation cases handled by Advocate are DUI cases.

Levy is well-connected in court politics himself -- he told ethics investigators that his firm is involved in 75 percent of the county's judicial elections. At least 10 current judges hired him during the 2006 campaign cycle, according to campaign spending records.

According to the Ethics Commission's complaint, Levy "believed that Metro knew about the access he had to judges in Miami-Dade County who might be in a position to "open this thing up and have people look at it."

Levy's maximum fine -- $250 for the first violation, $500 for each of the two others -- would have at least doubled and might have reached $4,000 had the incident happened after the County Commission increased fines in October.

"That's why we decided to double them -- it was cases like this, " said Commissioner Joe Martinez, who sponsored the bill to raise the fines. "You can violate, pay your fine and still make a bunch of money."